Join MySLAS Social

Microcontrollers, the Internet of Things and Our Laboratories

It’s been called the second industrial revolution. Whether it’s shaping smarter cities, tracking our 10,000 steps a day or just making sure we never run out of laundry detergent, microcontrollers and the Internet of Things (IoT) are making everyday life….well, if not simpler, at least a bit more effortless. But how is this technology changing life in the lab?

Easy as Raspberry Pi

SLAS member and frequent contributor Jay Gill, Ph.D., began his career as a neurobiologist studying signal transduction and coding in the central nervous system. He has since contributed to drug discovery by developing scientifically-oriented hardware and software solutions in support of high-throughput screening and lead optimization in early drug discovery. He’s seen a lot of changes during his 30-year career in the industry. For example, he was once working on an experiment that, for some reason, kept producing several variations in the data. He couldn’t immediately pinpoint the cause of the variability, but thought it had something to do with the robot. “Back in the day, I used a video camera and I just sat and watched the video, looking for things. It was long, tedious and boring,” he remembers. Eventually he discovered that a problem with the robot scheduler was the culprit.

These days, microcontrollers like Arduino and Raspberry Pi can simplify important tasks like monitoring systems by allowing researchers to connect motion sensors or lights to devices in the lab to tell them how many times a robot gets to a certain location and how long it took it to get there.

The Evolution of a Revolution

This evolution didn’t happen over night. In a 2006 paper published in SLAS Technology, co-founder and managing director of Ziath, Ltd. Neil Benn describes how he and his colleagues developed a monitoring system using microcontrollers to collect usage metrics on laboratory automation systems. The system took three months to design, build and install, and at the time, was considered “a relatively quick project.” Benn recalls, “Back in 2006, the controllers weren't really built for this. I had to buy raw components and start soldering them to boards. The programming to get it working was difficult and painful. Doing in-house, semi-hobby stuff was pretty much unheard of.” He recounts some difficulties he had with one of his original devices that accidentally deactivated the company’s entire telephone system. He says that wouldn’t happen now. “The technology for controllers over the years has moved on. Today I could probably buy all the hardware and what took me many months to set up back then, I could do in a couple of weeks now.”

Erik Werner, Ph.D. candidate from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and winner of the inaugural SLAS Graduate Education Fellowship Grant, can attest to this. “There’s been a push in recent years to make microcontrollers easy to use, and it’s become trivial to set up some sensors and collect tremendous amounts of data. I try to use one whenever it will be faster or provide higher quality data than measuring and recording things manually. For example, if I have a task that needs to be repeated many times or a measurement for which I would like many data points, I’ll set up an automated system. I will usually use an Arduino since they’re inexpensive and it’s easy to get something up and running.”

“If I Can’t Fix It, I Don’t Own It”

Gill is excited to see people being able to actually build the things they need with their own hands. “With these really accessible, inexpensive sensors and processors to utilize the information, combined with 3D printing, we can build anything. Access to equipment isn't going to be a rate-limiting step for us anymore.”

According to Gill, this “maker’s movement” started 15 years ago with a group of people who got tired of having to buy new equipment every time something broke. “They said, ‘if I can’t fix it, I don’t own it,’ and they started building things.” One of the things they built was a community dedicated to open source through the Internet. Today there are maker’s fairs all over the world where you can find everything from artists using computer-controlled routers for wood carving to a 15-year-old boy who uses a microcontroller, a motor and solar power to build a centrifuge for a laboratory equipped for the third world.

But what it really comes down to is the data. As Gill explains, the flow of data is a hierarchy from the sensor at the local level collecting data and sending it electronically to the microcontroller, where it’s processed and used to control the system, turning it on or off based on temperature, for example. “At that point, that piece of code may be running in the cloud where the data can be logged and used to determine variability.”

Werner is already seeing this in action as the tech support teaching assistant for UCI’s Biomedical Engineering Senior Design Class and BioENGINE Program. “I’ve seen a few students develop interesting products that use integrated sensors and cloud connectivity to provide features to their users based on the pooled data they collect.”

Benn can envision taking it even further: “imagine walking up to a piece of lab equipment and having it recognize you through an ID sewn into your lab coat. As you start working, the equipment and your coat ‘talk‘ to each other, saving the data generated from your movements to a specified file. Or picture using hand gestures to work with liquid nitrogen instead of donning heavy, thick protective gloves.” While he acknowledges a liquid nitrogen glove or a lab coat that talks to your centrifuge may not make economic sense right now, Benn believes within 10 years it will. “Look at how people use cell phones now,” he says. “Someone like me grew up when cell phones didn't exist, but someone coming into the lab in five years has never known a world without cell phones. Ten years after that, they’ll have never known a world without clothes that have some kind of tag in them.”                

This shift in thinking has already begun, says Werner. Schools have begun to integrate programming into their curriculum and microcontrollers make great learning tools due to their convenience and accessibility. In addition to his full-time graduate studies, Werner volunteers for Rocket Science Tutors and recently taught a series of classes to high school engineering students on microcontrollers and the Arduino platform. “The idea was to introduce them to the technology that powers the things they use every day, like TV remotes and microwaves. Once they have a foundation for how things work, they apply their skills in the OC Maker Challenge.” One of the lectures included audio fundamentals where students learn to play notes on a speaker using their microcontroller. By the next class, some of the students have programmed their microcontrollers to play entire songs. “You know you’ve succeeded when they take their own time after class to continue playing around with the technology and try new things using their new skills.”

Coming to a Classroom Near You

Now Werner and Gill are bringing their enthusiasm and knowledge to SLAS2018 in a hands-on short course entitled “Microcontrollers, the IoT and our Laboratories.”

The one-day introductory course is available for an additional fee to anyone who registers for SLAS2018. While no previous programming or electronics background is necessary, a little experience in either one will make it easier for participants to extend what they learn in the course. Gill is hoping for a diverse classroom. “I'd like to see a group of people who have maybe taken a VBA course or an analytics course and are comfortable with programming mingling with people who are completely naïve to this stuff; people who are seeing things out in the world and saying, what's a smart light bulb and how can I use it? In short, curious people.”

During the lecture part of the course the instructors address what equipment and technology is available, what users need to know to take advantage of it and where to go to learn those skills. They also examine how laboratory hardware can be interconnected with cloud-based systems to create labs for collecting and analyzing data in real time. “The lectures provide scope, motivation and direction for the hands-on component,” says Werner.

After the lectures, students build a basic system using Arduino while they have experienced users around to save time troubleshooting. Werner says, “We want to get new users past the tricky points at the very beginning of the learning curve. Once they’re up and running with their first project, the next time they want to build something it will be quick and easy, and they’ll be prepared to leverage the expansive support and tutorial network that already exists online for these devices.”

Gill expects that by the end of the course, people who may never have programmed or connected anything to a microcontroller with wires and bits of tape will easily be able to do something like read a temperature or detect whether or not a robot was at a certain location using a microcontroller.

Share your Experience

In addition to teaching the short course, Gill and Werner are guest editors of a 2018 special issue of SLAS Technology. They are looking for high-quality, short or full-length original research, reviews and perspectives on topics related to the technologies behind the Internet of Things. The deadline to submit abstracts is October 14, 2017.

For details on how to submit an abstract, visit the SLAS publications special issue call for papers.

October 2, 2017